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The Museum of Values

As part of the Theory of Knowledge course, Lower Sixth IB students have to consider what they understand by values and how our knowledge of the world constructs our values. I wanted a way for them to consider that values are perhaps a type of knowledge held by us in a unique way because they concern what ultimately matters to us in our lives. Inspired by a TED Talk on the Values Museum in Berlin I wrote this assembly with contributions from my Lower Sixth class.

Richard Smith, Head of Philosophy, Religion and Ethics

The video version of this assembly, as shared with the Senior School on Thursday 28 January can be watched below. The script can also be found below, if you would prefer to read Mr Smith's words. 


Here is a short story about openness and honesty, by Mr Smith who tries to teach Theory of Knowledge to the IB students. Chris is the sort of person who seemingly sails through life. When he arranges a weekend trip the sun just happens to shine despite the miserable forecast I thought would stop us getting out climbing. The tides are always just right with Chris and when he is there we always make it back to the pub just in time for last orders, even though we had to climb the last rope length in the dark. He manages to balance work life with adventure and being a great father and husband. He gives all his friends hope they can do the same. When Chris left Bristol to live in Australia I had only known him for about five years, but he had made a big impact on my life. It’s not easy to tell friends just how much you will miss them – and perhaps men often find this more difficult than women. But it is important to show… even if you can’t say it directly.

Chris has a chalkbag exactly the same as mine, which I gave to him before he moved away. I bought one for each us. It might not seem like much, but the chalkbag gift said what it needed to, and being open and honest to those whom you love… matters. However you do it. 

My Lower Sixth Theory of Knowledge class in the Autumn Term led to me finding out about a wonderful movement that started in Berlin in 2017. It is called the Museum of Values. I highly recommend you watch the TED Talk which got me thinking again about values at BGS and beyond.   Values define how we want to continue to live. Whereas goals, plans and fears focus on the outcome, values concern the way we do things. Put in very simple terms values are situation independent decision helpers 

So no matter what context, I'm trying (and sometimes failing) to stick to my own values. There are lots of theories about values, but the beauty of values is that they are more than intellectual concepts. They are part of our individual and collective story.

Think about a personal story connected to a value. I'm sure everybody, given time could think about a different one.  

Try for example bravery; not why it is important in the stories of soldiers or explorers or in theories of ethics, but as a personal memory, here from a BGS student: 

My best friend made me these earrings just before I had spinal surgery in June. I couldn’t see her for a long time since I had to shield before and after my surgery. I had to go to hospital and stay on my own because of COVID restrictions so no one could visit me during my recovery. I took off all of my jewellery before and left it at home since I couldn’t have it on in the surgery and I didn’t want to lose them in hospital. She gave me some gifts and a letter and told me to open them when I felt up to it in hospital. It’s genuinely one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, when I opened them I put them on and called her and we had a bit of a cry about it. The fact that she had made them herself, and was thinking about me was such a comforting thought. She made me feel brave in one of the loneliest times of my life. I still wear them whenever I can.

A Museum of Values asks people to send in their stories connected to objects, the objects are witnesses and relics that remind us of what's important. Some of the objects around you right now at home are so deeply ingrained in your daily lives that you might overlook what memory is in there and what life lessons are connected to it. Like a CD we used to listen to, or shells we found at the beach we love, or an old water bottle that we used to travel with. 

Some people know right away what their story is and what object they want to share – like this postcard that a granddad sent to his granddaughter ten years ago. The envelope was also stuffed with newspaper clippings he had been collecting of all the stories that he thought she would find interesting. He was the one who made sure she never stopped asking questions about everything in life, even the really annoying ‘why?’ questions. The box of clippings and the postcard are a reminder of his encouragement to keep reading widely, and to take up opportunities to learn as much as she can. Curiosity matters and, what’s more, granddad would have loved to find out about a Museum of Values.

Museums of Values try to create a real space, with real stories from real people like the ones from BGS I have shared here. Values need to be accessible and tangible to offer new perspectives. The idea is to create a space where people feel safe to open up to explore their values and reflect on them and interact with others. The objects and the stories are just catalysts, a starting point to make you think.

Maybe in a way this is also the importance of all museums. To make us reflect. Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. The collected stories and objects that remind us of the horrors of genocide are perhaps some of the most powerful witnesses of human values we could ever encounter. 

I wanted to install a Museum of Values exhibition at BGS this year to help us all reflect on our values. My students told me that it needed to be a physical space where people could read the stories as they passed by in school. I can see why they thought that, and so sadly I think it will be hard to install one this term. But, the museum still needs more objects and stories from you. Values matter and that makes us feel vulnerable, so it is important that the objects and stories can be shared by you anonymously. I hope there will be an online space where you can share your stories, objects and values in the near future. Look out for it and maybe I will see you at the grand opening of the exhibition sometime.